Which Universal Remote?

I recently purchased a Marantz NR1602 receiver and Pioneer SP-PK52FS speaker package. I am really excited and pleased with the performance, but I now have a new problem—way too many remotes! I hear a lot of endorsement for the Logitech Harmony remotes, but I also have seen a lot of professional installers recommend URC and RTI remotes. I am not afraid to dive in and spend a few hours programming my own macros, and I prefer a remote based on physical buttons. My current system includes an Apple TV, Marantz NR1602 receiver, Dish Network Hopper, Panasonic TC-P50ST50 plasma TV, and a Sony PS3, which I know I’ll need an added dongle to control. Can you recommend a particular model? Price is not an issue.

– Cory Hack
Hollis Center, ME

I’m a big fan of the Logitech Harmony remotes, especially for those who don’t want to "dive in" and program macros. However, a recent story on Engadget reveals that Logitech is planning to sell its Harmony division due to disappointing sales, so I’m not sure I can recommend them any more.

You’re right that many professional installers recommend URC and RTI remotes, and I do too—as long as you have a trained tech program them. I reviewed a URC remote quite some time ago, and programming it with a PC was a major pain in the rear. Still, the remotes from URC and RTI are more flexible and powerful than the Harmony models, which is one reason installers like them.

Also, I’m totally with you about preferring physical buttons. I operate my system with a Harmony One, and I can easily feel my way around the remote in complete darkness. With any touchscreen remote, you must look at it to find the button you want, and it’s typically very bright, which temporarily changes your eyes’ light adaptation. Still, universal remote apps on smartphones and tablets have become very popular, which I think is one reason the Harmony remotes aren’t selling as well as they used to.

One thing to consider is whether you want RF (radio-frequency) capabilities. Most universal remotes send commands as IR (infrared) pulses, which require a clear line of sight between the remote and the device(s) you want to control. An RF remote sends an RF signal, which can pass through opaque objects, so you don’t need to point it at the equipment. The gear can even be placed behind cabinet doors or in another room. However, RF remotes are generally more expensive, and you must set up an RF receiver, which converts the RF signal into IR for the equipment, and IR blasters that make sure the equipment gets the message.

Of the retail models from URC—that is, models that are not sold only through installers—the URC-WR7 (shown on the left above) can control up to seven devices and has the best design and button layout to my eye. The flagship URC-R40 (in the center of the image above) looks pretty good as well, and it can control up to 18 devices. URC also makes a couple of RF models for retail sales, the URC-RF10 and RF20; the button layouts are very similar, but I prefer the RF20 (on the right) because it has no multifunction buttons.

I’m not a fan of the button layout of any RTI remote I’ve seen recently. For example, the transport buttons are all the same size and shape, making them difficult to distinguish by feel.